06/22/2005 11:00PM

Prices, performances come up short

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NEW YORK - Before the 2005 Triple Crown disappears from the rearview mirror, there is a flip side worth noting to Afleet Alex's ultimate domination of the series. While this year's Triple Crown will rightly be best remembered for Afleet Alex's excellent efforts in the Preakness and Belmont, it also may have showcased the worst collective performances by the opposition in recent history.

Never have so many run in a Triple Crown, yet, never have there been so few performances that can even be called respectable. Despite a record-high total of 45 starters in the three races (limit fields of 20 in the Derby and 14 in the Preakness, and then 11 in the Belmont), there was a record low of just three performances that earned Beyer Speed Figures of over 100: Afleet Alex's 112 in the Preakness and 106 in the Belmont, and Scrappy T's 105 for finishing second in the Preakness.

Take Afleet Alex out of the equation and only Scrappy T, from 42 starters in the three races, was able to run a Beyer of better than 100. Removing Afleet Alex from the scenario also means we would have had a Kentucky Derby won by Giacomo with a Beyer of 100, a Preakness won by Scrappy T with a 105, and a 6 3/4-length Belmont romp by Andromeda's Hero with a winning Beyer of 96. Imagine picking a champion 3-year-old from that trio.

It is fair to at least wonder if something has gone awry with the training and preparation of horses for these races. Over 90 percent of the performances delivered in the Triple Crown series are inadequate to win the average graded stakes race and are inferior to what these horses have done earlier in their careers.

Unless you believe that we're simply not making horses who can go more than 1 1/8 miles anymore, there is no obvious explanation for so many poor efforts. People talk about the rigors and demands of the prep season and then the three classics in five weeks, but these colts are making fewer starts than ever, and only Afleet Alex and Giacomo even ran in all three legs. You could say it is a weak crop thinned out by Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, but this year's prep races were reasonably strong and featured at least 10 performances that earned Beyers of over 100.

When it came time for the main events, though, almost everyone went the wrong way. In the Derby, only the first two finishers from 20 starters improved on their prior form - form that made them legitimately 50-1 and 70-1 in the race. In the Preakness, only Afleet Alex and Scrappy T ran at all well, and in the Belmont, only Afleet Alex and Andromeda's Hero could exceed the Beyer of 86 that was good enough for the maiden Nolan's Cat to finish third.

Nowhere was the wave of subpar efforts that began in the Derby reflected more clearly than on the toteboards for the Preakness and Belmont, where the public reacted to the unfathomable Derby result with some of the strangest betting ever seen in major races.

In the Preakness, despite a field of 14, no horse went off at more than 27-1. Legitimate 100-1 shots such as Hal's Image and Malibu Moonshine, who looked far less likely to hit the board than Giacomo looked to win the Derby, instead went off at 23-1 and 24-1.

Afleet Alex's victory as the favorite in the Preakness might have seemed likely to restore some order to the world and the win pool, but the betting in the Belmont was even goofier. This time, despite an 11-10 favorite, no one went off higher than 20.60-1, the price on Watchmon, who would have been no bargain at five times that price. Beyond Afleet Alex and Giacomo, the nine other starters all went off at between 11-1 and 20-1, an astoundingly narrow band. It's not as if there weren't much greater discrepancies on paper among the nine than that, but the public was saying that it either didn't trust the previous form or believe that anyone would reproduce it.

After Giacomo won the Derby, it was widely predicted that there will be limit fields of 20 in the Derby for years to come. Anyone wavering about entering a marginal contender may push himself right into the entry box with a battle cry of "Remember the Giacomo." Will bettors do the same? We may not see a Derby field of fewer than 20 for a while, and we may also not see a 50-1 shot again soon. If you begin with the proposition that 18 of the 20 horses may not run their races, nobody seems completely impossible.